BY Antonio Graceffo
This is number four in a series on this topic of Children allegedly learning languages faster than adults.
If a child were adopted by a Vietnamese family and I were also adopted by a Vietnamese family. And the kid and I both lived with our respective Vietnamese families and attended primary school, in theory, the child would learn faster than me, in fact I could never match his accent. Because this is how we acquire language.
The reality, however, is that as an adult, I will most likely not be adopted into a Vietnamese family. And in the history of the world, very few foreign children were ever adopted by and raised in a Vietnamese family. Barring this eventuality, the only way to learn the language is to study. In which case, adults learn faster.
Nearly all experts agree that children acquire languages better than adults, but opportunities to acquire language are not very common. And certainly, an opportunity for a westerner to acquire an Asian language almost never comes up.
I actually knew a Swiss family in Taiwan who had studied Chinese together for at least a year. Afterwards, the whole family spoke brilliantly. The children the entered public school and the parents worked in some job where they had constant contact with the public, speaking in Chinese. The whole family was 100% fluent, but the children were completely accentless. One day, I saw the Swiss children playing with some Chinese children in front of my house. I had my back turned, because I was cleaning my motorcycle. I heard one of the children speaking perfect, native like Chinese and just assumed it was one of the Chinese children. When I turned around, however, I saw that it was one of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Swiss children.
A random sampling of one doesn’t prove or disprove a theory. But, this experience was in keeping with the theory supported my most experts which is that children can loose their accent and adults can’t.
A half-Spanish, half-Taiwanese girl who I knew in Taiwan represented yet another side of this coin. She was raised her entire life in Taiwan, and spoke accentless, native-like Chinese. Her mother didn’t speak a word of Chinese or English, so she had spoken Spanish with her mother her whole life. When I spoke to her in Spanish, while she had no accent, her Spanish sounded like that of a small child, although she was in her twenties at the time. I feel this supports my theory that only academic study can get you real, adult fluency in a foreign language. The girl had never attended school taught in the Spanish language and had never read a book in Spanish. Clearly, she couldn’t reach full fluency simply by speaking with her mother in the home? Once again, I must bring up the intensive language programs taught at Middlebury University or Monterey Institute, where adults are taught Spanish and in four years, starting with no prior knowledge, they can reach adult fluency.
Her accent was better than mine, in Spanish, but my academic fluency was much higher.
As for Chinese, she spoke without an accent and, from what I could tell, she spoke appropriately for her age, but she was not able to pass her academic exams to graduate high school and enter university. In spite of being raised in Taiwan, and having one Chinese parent, and in spite of having attended twelve years of Taiwanese public education, having a non-Chinese speaking mother prevented this girl from reaching academic fluency in Chinese.
Meanwhile, I have known a small handful of foreign adults who learned Chinese and graduated a BA or MA program from a Taiwanese university, taught in Chinese.
After more than twenty years in Taiwan the mother still hadn’t learned even a single word of the language. Does this suggest that adults can’t learn languages? I don’t think so. The mother had also made no attempt to learn Chinese. She never attended classes, never hired a tutor and she spent most of her time at home, receiving visits from a handful of other Spanish brides in Taiwan.
A university-level ESL teacher with an MA in ESL told me that he believes the most important element which determines a learner’s success of failure is motivation. Many theorists agree. In fact, David Long, the world’s leading expert on ALG method told me, “Motivation is also the aspect of learning that we know least about.” O one knows how to quantify it or to study it, but it is clearly significant in language learning.
I knew a missionary family in Taiwan where the whole family took Chinese lessons together, full time for six months. And the parents consistently scored higher than the kids. But at the end of the course, the parents went to work in Taiwan and the kids went to Taiwanese junior high school. I lost touch with the family, but wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the kids learned more Chinese than their parents, once they were in public school.
Do adults learn faster than children? Would an adult and a child reach the same level of fluency, given the same level of immersion and education? Unfortunately, we can’t do a double-blind test, because adults wouldn’t generally be admitted to a Taiwanese junior high school. And if you hung around a junior high long enough, someone would call the police.
In the instance, assuming that the kids spoke better than their parents at the end of the next year, would we attribute this simply to A. the fact that they are younger? Or, B to the fact that they were in school, being exposed to language, plus writing homework and studying for exams countless hours per day?
I believe they learn because of the constant exposure to and study of the language. The handful of foreign adults I know who made it through a four-year university program in Taiwan, taught exclusively Chinese, all spoke and read Chinese brilliantly at the end. And NONE of them had any prior knowledge of Chinese before coming to Taiwan. I would not find it hard to believe, however, that a teenager, attending junior high would be more fluent at the end of the same time period, but this would be because of interaction with friends and classmates, not just because of age.
In the case of refugees or immigrants: Example: A Vietnamese family moves to Germany. Younger brother enters German public school, studying in grade one. The older brother enters high school, grade nine. The younger brother succeeds at learning the language and eventually graduates high school. The older brother fails to learn the language well-enough and he drops out of high school.
Did younger brother succeed because he was younger?
Youth may play a role in this scenario but the intellectual demands of the varying school grades might be the most significant point. In grade one, native speaker children are still learning to read and write. So, it is easier for a foreign child to join and learn with them. Older brother entered grade nine, where students are already expected to be able to read a novel and do a research paper.
Does older brother’s failure to master grade nine mean he would have failed to learn grade one as well? I don’t think so. I think if older brother had been in grade one he would have passed. By grade two he would have been more advanced than his younger brother because of his greater knowledge and past experience.
I go through my grade one student’s textbooks all of the time and I think, in Chinese, if I were admitted to school grade one, I would be slower than the other students, but I would be able to keep up and would learn by the end of the year.
Another western family I know was living in Thailand. The whole family attended a handful of survival Thai lessons. The kids went to international school, taught in English. The father worked and the mother kept house. At the end of the year, the whole family spoke the same amount of Thai, which was about 50% of what they had learned in their survival Thai course a year earlier. They could deal with very simple questions, such as what time is it or how much is that? And that was it.
The fact that the children were younger didn’t mean that they magically learned a language they had little or no exposure to. One of my colleagues argued that children learn languages faster because “They are so immersed in the language.” Youth doesn’t create immersion. In the case above, the child was no more immersed than the parent and they learned equally.
In yet another family I studied with: The parents studied full-time, intensive Thai for one year. The kids didn’t. They just lived in the family home in Bangkok and had a home tutor teaching them their American school lessons. At the end of the year, the kids knew literally no Thai at all. The parents were fairly fluent (functional).
A family in Taiwan had almost the same situation. Mom and dad studied Taiwanese full time. The kids went to international school and had about four hours of Chinese per week. By the end of the year, the parents were nearly fluent and the kids weren’t even functional. The international school was taught in English. Nearly 70% of the students were Chinese but the medium of play was English. The foreign children didn’t magically become immersed in Chinese language.
Studying is (for all practical purposes and intents) the only way to learn a language. People disagree with this statement. But to create an immersion situation, an acquisition situation, for an adult or a child is nearly impossible. So, while it may be an interesting theory that children have a greater capacity to acquire knowledge, we are almost never in an acquisition situation. We are generally in a study situation, in which case adults learn faster.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
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